This massive mega-adventure clocks in at 70 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 66 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved forward in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy of this book in exchange for an honest, critical and unbiased review.
We begin this module with information on the setting and rules suggested (but not necessarily required). The default setting for this mega-adventure is Razira, a massive, slumbering planetoid beast. This living planet is orbited by two “moons,” Vrista and Anu. Vrista keeps Razira in perpetual slumber, whereas Anu, the shadow moon, is home to the legions of the dark – akin to Final Fantasy 8, it is from there that demons and devils enter Razira in regular incursions. As for the past, the empire of snake-men has long since crumbled and now, the planetoid feels much more like a regular world. Divine and arcane magic are pretty much alike and usually tied to a patron – and here, you can choose either arsenic or strychnine: Following the traditions of pulp and horror, the major deities of this world are not particularly friendly: Great K’tulu, Yogsoggoth, insane Azyargoth and the frog-god Tsathag’kha need no introduction, I assume. Ulusek and Lokvaar once were one god that split, now representing two warring factions. Tchort is a brutal lord of fire. Dathlaquatta is a deity of elemental air, law and order and finally, there is Shula, goddess of the moons.
Demons are chaotic, devils are lawful…and elves, both dark and light, are considered to be soulless and pretty much nasty fellows. They are known for dabbling in the material Lyrthum. Weapons made from it do not apply Str, instead allowing for the option to penalize yourself by -2 when attacking to get a second attack at -4. This means the usual penalty assumed is decreased by 2 for each attack. lyrthum also only sports half the penalties for casters. The second material introduced, zorv’lev, infernal steel, is pretty much the opposite. Being pretty heavy, weapons made from it have a minimum Str-score associated…but you triple Str-bonuses for damage purposes with them. To offset this, the material only allows for one attack per round. Furthermore, it doubles weight and casting-related penalties when used as armor. If that seems kind of opaque…then that’s not due to me failing to properly sum up the rules-repercussions here – they in fact are less precise than what I expect from rules-information.
Speaking of rules: There are several provided herein: Attributes are assumed to net no bonus at score 9-10, +1/-1 for every 2 above/below that. The module assumes 0 level PCs that start with 4 hit points, rolling the appropriate HD every level, ignoring 1s. Dying is handled thus: 0 HP = unconscious, -1 death. Each level increases the death threshold by 1, meaning a 4th level character dies at -5 HP. The book also assumes a fortune score, rolled with 3d6. A point of fortune can be spent before a roll or after it: Before a roll, it provides +3 per point spent, after a roll only +1. This pool is important when playing this module with the suggested rules – without it, this is an almost unbeatable meatgrinder. Fortune replenishes at the mercy of the GM as roleplaying rewards. More guidelines here on when to refresh would have been appreciated.
Ability-checks are rolled with numerous d6, trying to score below the attribute, with easy tasks being 2d6, difficult ones being 4d6, Saving throws are determined by level: 0-level characters save on a 20, 3rd level chars on a 17…you get the idea. Damage-dice are explosive: Rolling the highest damage number lets you reroll the damage and add it to the damage scored, rendering combat deadly and unpredictable. Magic follows different rules as well – a spell can be cast ad infinitum – until it fizzles, then you have to relearn the spell. The book does not codify magic in traditional ways, instead championing a free form magic of improvisation, with the check getting the formula of 1/2 caster level + Int-mod minus spell level. I have no idea how this magic system is supposed to work. Is that a d20-roll? I assume so from the table that sports 1 as a critical failure, 20 as a critical success, but against what? No idea. I recommend skipping this rule – it’s opaque and quite frankly, badly written for rules-language. Scrolls and potions are one-use items, wands have a default of 13 charges and double items and the like can end in strange things happening. Instead of XP, the book champions levels by session – level 1 after 1 session, 2 after two more sessions…per se simple. It also suggest the requirement of a trainer, but in the context of this module, that’s highly problematic. We’ll see later in the SPOILER-section why. On the positive side, choosing a motivation is nice…and I really like the dark secrets table: If you don’t like an ability-score your rolled, you may reroll it in exchange for a dark secret…and they are nasty as well as diverse and creative. Basic rules for status and parting shots of killed characters are also talked about.
Initiative is covered by rolling a d20+dex-mod and similar modifiers. 20+ means the character gains a bonus surprise round. Characters who haven’t acted get can be hit as +2 and similarly, characters may forego their attacks for +2 hit and damage, while casters may gain that bonus or penalize enemy saves by that much…or increase their free-flow magic. As mentioned before, two-weapon fighting, fighting defensively, out-numbering foes… the like are covered and here, the rules are okay and relatively easy to grasp. You won’t find any revolutionary rules here, though, and the book’s presentation of them is slightly jumbled – putting them in the middle between setting information and backdrop makes the presentation feel a bit haphazard, which is not a good thing in the context of rules.
It should be noted that the module suggests generating multiple characters – personally, I’d suggest at least 3. This module is lethal. At the same time, I’d strongly advise against heeding the advice of making new characters after one PC dies level 1 – this renders the PC significantly less powerful than his comrades. If you can’t handle PC death, this module will break you – this mega-adventure is VERY HARD.
One more thing: See the cover? If that was not ample clue for you: This is a module intended for mature audiences. The artworks inside do sport nudity, demons and the like. If you’re sensitive to imagery of naked people about to be sacrificed and the like, if the cover offends you, then this probably is not for you. As a German, I have not been brought up with the taboos regarding sexuality that quite a few American have. (Instead, we have taboos regarding gratuitous violence, but that’s another thing altogether – if you’re interested in my thoughts on cultural taboos, drop me a line!) In my opinion, sexuality is featured herein, yes, but not in a gratuitous or particularly exploitative manner – it’s pretty toned down and can be completely ignored, should you choose to do so. My litmus test for the like tends to involve asking female gamers if they’re offended by it – in this case, the unanimous response was “No,” alongside a bemoaning of a lack of naked dudes in the artworks (at least on the side of the heterosexual ladies).
All right, let’s get into the background and meat of this module! Since this is a review for an adventure, from here on out reign the SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs here? Great! The village of Clear Meadows is as peaceful and nice as you can expect from a settlement in Razira: In a hostile world such as this, the village basically is a nexus of calm – all right, it may have its own share of people who want it subsumed by the chaos that roams the place, but as far as this hostile world goes, it is idyllic. Random monsters roaming the planes are provided alongside rumors and some intrigue…but the whole meat is something different. You see, once per year, the denizens of the village collect the unfortunate and throw them into a dungeon to reclaim a powerful sword with a malign intellect, Kalathax the Demon Slayer, a blade rightfully feared by demons, devils and every unclean creature. With only some basic rations and tools, the PCs have to enter the dungeon to hopefully reclaim the sword and defend the town…for a while, before it needs to be returned due to its corrupting influence, for another batch of heroes to get – think of it as a deadly trial by fire. In 3 days, the portcullis will be opened again…and the whole module is, actually, on a timer: This time around, the settlement will be destroyed…unless the PCs can get the blade in 15 days or less. Generally, I do not object to this, but the suggestion of leveling via training does render this strange – we never get information or suggestions on how much time we have to spent training.
The complex does sport some strange sigils that can render the unwary catatonic and is LETHAL. I mean really, really lethal: If you see, for example, a slime: RUN. No, really. One touch and you’re dead/turned into a slime/gelatinous cube yourself. So yes, all in all, this one is pretty brutal in the difficulty department – sometimes frustratingly so. In the first level, we have e.g. a portcullis that can separate the party in two – nasty. On this level, the PCs can also find a pair of soulless elves and a carnivorous, fibrous growths…and there would be the repose of a wizard, whose glowing face pronounces doom, Oz-style, on intruders, while a vast swathe of carnivorous maggots needs to be cleared to reach the sarcophagus that contains Kalathax…and for sadistic GMs, the lich that guards it. And yes, this is the very definition of overkill. The level also introduces a character from our world stranded here that can help later…and the level actually is pretty much a great representation of what’s awesome…and what’s bad with this module.
You see, this book does sport nice b/w-maps for the respective levels. The problem is, though, that, beyond some hiccups regarding the maps (which exist, but remain within the bearable range), the module is extremely annoying in its opacity regarding the connections of levels and the general connections – the maps do not always list them and you won’t find “This leads to room C3.” – Instead, you have to somehow piece together how everything is supposed to be connected, which is really, really grating. This is by far the most GM-unfriendly book I’ve run in quite a while in this regard, requiring you to do quite a bunch of work on your own. This little fact alone made me reread a module I had pretty much memorized the first time I read it and it represents a major downside.
On the ambiguous side, the quest is pretty much done at first level – get Kalathax, done. You can run this in a convention slot and it works. However, I sincerely wished the dungeon actually sported some reason for the PCs to delve deeper, some frame narrative. Why? Because the dungeon per se and its ideas are diverse and fun and level 1 is pretty much the most boring of the bunch – yes, a room full of flesh-eating giant maggots that want to eat you while a glowing face pronounces doom constitutes one of the less inspired components.
Let me elaborate: The dungeon level the PCs should access from 1st level (how is, as mentioned above, somewhat opaque), is level 3: Here, worshipers of Ulusek and Lokvaar are wrapped up in a rather nasty microscopic religious war, now inhabiting a crashed alien spaceship that represents a healthy dose of scifi – with voice-automated checkpoints and the like It is also here that 3 elders with psionic powers can be found – willing to teach them, should the PCs complete their respective quests. The level also sports a thankfully not yet activated nuclear warhead the PCs should defuse (religious fanatics in control of nukes? BAD!) as well as a hatch…which can and should be used to defuse the bomb and make level 2 accessible, for that one is flooded. Oh, and, to give you an example on why this book rocks…and kind of sucks: There is an encounter here, with chained abominations and a guy in a white coat titled “Herbert West’s Formula” – but unlike the optional lich on level one, we get no stats for the numerous abominations, the Dr., or the effects of the formula. you have this cool encounter…and no idea what’s supposed to happen here, what the powers of the foes are…yeah. On the “rock”-side: There is a lethal, mind-raping orange on this level, one that delights in implanting suicide compulsions on its victims. No, this is NOT an auto-correct typo. Orange. Awesome!
Level 2 (and level 4) are defined by green crystals that render magic even more chaotic and unreliable. The soggy 2nd level is home to the worshipers of Yogsoggoth, perpetually at war with the cultists of other dread deities – and home to dangers like water-elementals, vampire toads and the like. Oh, and you may actually be abducted to level 0 of the dungeon, which turns out to be a particularly nasty interplanar gladiatorial game/mini-dungeon, where a LOT of things may insta-gib you and a talking giant venus man-trap may be your only way home.
On level 4, we have a theme mostly in line with classic fantasy – a small clan of exiled dark elves (all lavishly rendered and depicted in detail regarding motivations etc.) provides the main source of the story here…as does a Rambo-style guerrilla warrior hunting the PCs. Oh, and there are insane cannibals. And killer kobolds. A hellraiser-style dressed high-priestess of devils also roams these halls, dressed mostly in chains, spikes and tattoos – though, much like the “nice” slaver that can be found here, she has no combat statistics, which, in her case, may be a bad decision – her artwork makes her look like someone the PCs may wish to eliminate… Oh, and no, there is no reason for those NPCs to be stuck here. Yes, this is old-school, but at least a collapsed tunnel to the underdark or the like would have been appreciated, for I really don’t get how all of these guys got past level 5 and 6… On the plus-side: Demo-dragon-spider hybrids. And yes, their artwork is nightmare fuel.
Level 5, imho, is one that has more of a distinct identity than the somewhat clustered levels 2 and 4: Beyond a medusa (with a great artwork), the scene on the cover takes place here – this is the domain of the cult of Great K’tulu – and they’re BRUTAL. Beyond the star-spawn, they have a massive slug-beast (rendered in lavish 1-page art, though its statblock lacks the proper formatting)…and Selvah. Selvah, high-priest of K’tulu, is an insanely powerful adversary: Holy symbols in his presence MELT, immediately crippling divine casters. His unholy avenger and other items make him even more deadly: 3d4+7 damage, escalating dice. Suffer. Selvah’s schedule is pretty packed, but is clear that stealth and the like should be used as an approach here – otherwise, PCs will die…perhaps the whole party. The cultists and their leader are deadly and their creatures are even more so. Still, this is one of my favorite levels herein.
The final level, level 6, would then have a theme of “hell” – with magma-men, fire elementals and several devils in a precarious stalemate, this is a great place for the PCs to forge infernal alliances to beat tougher foes and then destroy the creatures of the pit. It is also here that PCs may find access to the underdark and talk to odd survivalists. Within these halls, the PCs may also face off versus a friggin’ magma dragon – and they may have to. For beyond high-tech security looms the sorcerous-interface AI JCN, which seeks nothing but global annihilation…and has the means to pursue this. So yes, if you want to go post-apocalyptic, here’s your choice. If you want to destroy JCN’s mainframe, you can do so as well – but you’ll have to find a way for the magma to rise…and better be fast regarding evacuation. Oh, and you have to place the room. It’s not marked on the map.
Magic-item-wise, a red thread throughout the dungeon would be the shining trapezohedron-like shapes that can be found throughout the dungeon, with unique effects…and yes, they can be used to tie the disparate stories together…flimsily.
The pdf concludes with an author’s page and some final pieces of advice.
Editing and formatting on a formal level are good – while there are some glitches here and there, the writing quality is more than solid. Layout adheres to an easy-to-read b/w-two-column standard and the pdf provides solid b/w-cartography, though there are no player-friendly, key-less versions. The artworks deserve special mention: Awesome, original pieces with great, disturbing creatures are in here – show them to players and let them marvel at the adversaries faced. As mentioned above: There is nudity in the artworks, so mature audiences are suggested. I do NOT recommend you getting the electronic version – it has no bookmarks and at this length, navigation is a pretty big deal. If you get it, get it in print – the paper quality and glossy cover/solid overall presentation make this a nice book to have in print.
This is the freshman offering of Venger As’Nas Satanis and Kort’thalis Publishing…and unfortunately, it shows. Liberation of the Demon Slayer showcases the cool things one can see in later modules and is a great herald of the things to come…but it is also a very flawed book. Basically, you have absolutely awesome visuals, monsters and themes – the mood is great and the ideas this book evokes are glorious: If you like dark fantasy, very hard modules and look for a challenge: LotDS provides all of that. At the same time, this mega-adventure is very cobbled together: Beyond very minor themes, you wouldn’t lose much by taking the respective levels apart and using them as individual dungeons.
I’m one of the GMs who run modules only unmodified for playtesting purposes and I very much subscribe to the nothing Venger expressed in his GM-advice book, that at least 15% of a module happens at the table, spontaneously. I tend to rewrite modules heavily. Here, though, the module feels very much unfinished in that it requires quite some GM work to properly run – from the issues with the maps to missing stats for potentially lethal encounters, this cannot be run spontaneously…at least, not well.
The mechanics this book utilizes are also a LONG SHOT away from the relative refinement of his later works like “Crimson Dragon Slayer.” From the fortune-mechanic (all of which can be burned at once for HUGE bonuses) to the needlessly opaque magic rules, the rules provided herein are VERY rough around the edges and something I’d only suggest for expert GMs, particularly since the lack of refreshment guidelines for fortune (beyond level-up) can either render this module extremely hard or almost too easy. The rules-context is pretty flawed and this extends, alas, to where statblocks are presented and where they’re ignored – I found no true rhyme or reason for the omission of them regarding certain NPCs, which, again, is something the GM has to cover.
If all of that sounds pretty negative…then because it is. The map-issues and difficulty to determine how everything connects are pretty big strikes against the book and the same can be said about the lack of bookmarks for the electronic version. As mentioned: Get this in print. You’ll thank me later and yes, you’ll have enough on your plate.
That being said, at the same time, this module is absolutely awesome. What *IS* here, what’s not lost in some opacity or one description being applied to multiple rooms, that is simply inspired. If you even remotely like dark fantasy with a serious spicing of Lovecraftian creatures (not horror) and a garnish of scifi, then this will have you cackle with glee: From the potential apocalyptic final boss to the devilish schemes to the super-deadly bosses of level 5, this book delivers in these regards galore. Additionally, if your players are bored by modules being too easy, smack this down. LotDS is the hardest module I’ve read in ages and certainly not something for the faint of heart – while mostly fair, there are some creatures and traps herein that are truly LETHAL. As in: “You die!” So, if you need a break from current RPGs and their fair, scaling encounters, you might want to take a look: This beast is for the pros. My playtest saw no less than 11 characters perish, often hilariously, sometimes horribly.
LotDS, for me, has oscillated between love and hatred more than most books – on the one reason, I love the set-up, the atmosphere, the vast creativity you can find herein. On the other hand, I loathe the sloppy mechanics, map-glitches and inconsistencies that mark this as a freshman offering. This is a book, I ended up both loving and hating – mainly because all of its issues can be resolved by a good GM. From connections to over-arcing plot-lines, this sandboxy module can provide entertainment beyond most dungeons of this size I’ve read: It has the spark of creativity and quality prose that tends to trump most shortcomings in such contexts for me. At the same time, I can’t rate potential – I can only rate what’s here – and what’s here is flawed; Not unsalvageable, but pretty flawed nonetheless. I really, really want to rate this highly, but I quite frankly can’t. If you’re looking for a book to use and play immediately, well, then this is NOT for you. The best way to look at this and enjoy it, would be to think of this as a pretty detailed sketch of a mega-dungeon – you need to complete it; generate the material that ties it together…and work with it, providing the connecting threads for the inspired highlights herein. Then, you will have some fun time – quite a lot, actually, since the book does provide a solid amount of content. If you’re looking for a module to read and run as is, then look elsewhere and the same holds true if you’re not comfortable tinkering with the mechanics as presented herein.
Ultimately, the flaws weigh heavy here, and try as I might, as much as I want to recommend this, I can’t ignore them. They may be partially offset by the leeway this gets as a freshman offering, but they still remain. My final verdict, taking the freshman offering-bonus into account, will clock in at 2.5 stars, rounded up by a margin to 3…for the print version. For the electronic version…just don’t. Books of this size sans bookmarks are a pain. If this would be your first Kort’thalis Publishing book, I’d instead advise you to get one of the later works, like Crimson Dragon Slayer. That being said, fans of dark fantasy and GMs willing to work with this module have a lot of awesome ideas here that can be developed into a glorious dungeon -for both the purposes of the scavenging toolkit and for GMs willing to work with the book, this still constitutes a unique, creative module that has more ideas and unique scenes than some whole series. If the formal flaws don’t scare you, then check this out – I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed on the creativity-side.
You can get this mega-adventure here on OBS!